(Originally published on Grateful Music)
No venue in Manhattan is quite like Central Park SummerStage at Rumsey Playfield. Centered in the bucolic and historic park, the surroundings themselves are worth the venture alone, yet when a surviving member of the Grateful Dead is playing, the scenery serves merely as a gateway to the main event. With a capacity of roughly 5000 people, SummerStage was packed to the rafters on Wednesday night, yet due to its relatively small size the venue provides an intimate environment, often not seen at many outdoor concert grounds. So strolling through the park prior to the show, I found myself drawn to the nearby rocks where folks regularly congregate before events. Meeting old friends and new, the aura outside was terrific, mellow, and anticipatory for the night to come.
And expectations were wholeheartedly met as Phil Lesh and his current company took the stage and Tony Leone belted out the familiar drumbeat signaling the Samson and Delilah at hand. If folks took this as evidence of a show heading in the direction of late seventies up-tempo Dead, they, as I, were markedly mistaken, as the band forayed into the longtime Jerry staple, Catfish John. The soulful tune allowed ample time for guitarists Eric Krasno, and Neal Casal to open up and cut deep. The interplay between the two lead axemen remained to be a strong point all night long, accentuated by the versatile keysmanship of the latest Black Crowes keyboardist, Adam MacDougall.
As the music moved forward, it was evident that we were in for a blues heavy show with back to back Pig Pen tunes, Hard to Handle, and Easy Wind. As MacDougall, Casal, and Leone are all Chris Robinson collaborators of past and present, a bluesy element emblematic of the Crowes emanated through the players, and created a unique sound relative to past Phil & Friends incarnations. Robinson delved into his roll as lead vocalist with ease and swagger, and at times seemed to be channeling the late great Ron McKernan, not only with voice, but also through a gritty harmonica solo in the midst of Easy Wind. As set one came to a close with Big River, the band presented us with a fresh take, and I found myself reaching a transcendent state for the first time in the evening.
The fact that Phil’s still bringing us full length shows of stellar live music well into his seventies is a blessing and a miracle. For that, I can’t blame him in the least for the extended set breaks that have become commonplace at his shows. I know many folks his age that are long in bed and asleep while he’s raging onward night after night. So while the lengthy intermission allowed Phil and company to reenergize, it gave us heads ample time for bathroom breaks, beer runs, and mingling with our friends and family. As the sun went down on the Park, and the lights brightened on the stage, we all dug in for what was to be a smoking second set.
The He’s Gone opener was met with rip-roaring enthusiasm from the audience, as the song has taken up special meaning since the passing of Jerry Garcia. At this juncture it occurred to me we haven’t heard much from Phil in respect to fronting vocals. While many deadheads have taken umbrage with him appropriating a lead on certain songs, there are a few he has adopted and truly made his own in the post-Jerry years. And as clear as the summer’s sky, his voice shined through in singing Saint Stephen and Franklin’s Tower. With the night winding down, the double encore opened with the recognizable riff of Mr. Charlie, a fitting choice with Robinson’s ability to conjure the essence of Pig Pen. Each band member took a musical bow with respective solos, and in capping it all off, the ensemble left us with a sentimental U.S. Blues that evoked nostalgia of the epic summertime “come and gone.”
All in all this was a well-executed show, with a handful of highs, and some middle of the road moments. For many of the Northeast deadheads in attendance, this was their first opportunity to see Phil live and in the flesh in this fiftieth year of Grateful Dead (or at least since before Fare Thee Well), and that vibe waved wide and high as we danced and sang the night away to our favorite tunes. As a New Yorker, I consider myself to be among the fortunate since Lesh retired from touring, as I’m still able to get my Phil fix fairly frequently. As he rides off into his twilight years, I imagine Phil will venture less commonly from his home at Terrapin Crossroads. So with a run of shows coming up at the Capitol Theater in Portchester, NY at the end of October, I’d encourage all who can make it to catch Phil and his friends as they round out this epic year in Grateful Dead history.
Words: Russell S. Glowatz